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Convoluted 'Cletis Tout' plays itself into the ground

| Friday, Aug. 9, 2002

Writer-director Chris Ver Wiel's love for classic movies keeps his "Who Is Cletis Tout?" hurtling through the projector.

It begins with a hit man named Critical Jim (Tim Allen) sitting in a revival house choking up as he re-watches "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Later, he touts the merits of "The Great Escape" as it flickers on a background TV, emulates the most famous moment in "Singin' in the Rain," and quotes gems such as "Rebecca" and "Double Indemnity."

He hates what has become of movies, with their third-act explosions.

When one character cross-references movies, he's telling us about himself. When others do, too, it becomes a conceit of the filmmaker and risks distancing us from the main action.

In "Who Is Cletis Tout?," hit men named Nimble (Louis Di Bianco) and Fife (Tony Nappo) chat in a cafe about the banjo playing in "Deliverance" and about the cretins' selection of the man to rape.

Later, the coroner Savian (Billy Connolly) admonishes someone sipping coffee while examining a corpse. "This isn't 'Quincy,'" he says.

"Cletis Tout" doesn't stop there. The convoluted structure, modeled on Quentin Tarantino exercises such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," as well as "The Usual Suspects," "The Spanish Prisoner" and other quirky little mysteries, uses fractured sequencing to double back and forth throughout the story.

We keep learning that scenes are running out of order. We get flashbacks within flashbacks. Several moments are re-shown from the perspective of someone we didn't know was nearby the first time we saw the scene.

The movie is, in short, less a satisfying meal than a collection of tricks, all of which work on their own terms but which cumulatively rob "Cletis Tout" of an essence of its own.

Being a crime comedy, its characters have a certain license to behave in amusingly improbable ways. But the picture is so in-jokey it cannot accommodate a death that should be allowed to touch us. And the light-hearted tone cannot excuse two incredibly implausible sequences - one involving a prison escape that requires a film projector and another built around the recovery of diamonds.

It begins "20 years ago" in 1977 with the robbery of $4.5 million in diamonds by avocational magician Micah (Richard Dreyfuss second-billed in a brief supporting role).

When he and forger Trevor Finch (Christian Slater) bust out of a North Carolina prison, they acquire fake IDs from Savian. Finch has the misfortune to assume the identity of Cletis Tout, a sleazy journalist who was just executed by Nimble and Fife for trying to blackmail a Mafia don.

The reappearance of a Cletis Tout leads the mobsters to believe they got the wrong guy and must try again. And again. Critical Jim is on the job, too, under an independent contract.

He, though, wants to hear Finch's story first. "Pitch me," he says, eager to have it be told in movie terms, complete with a satisfying audience payoff.

Even in a comedy, we need to be able to buy into sequences of events. Ver Wiel is crafty but not craftsmanlike in negotiating the corners into which he keeps painting himself.

A romance involving Micah's daughter Tess (Portia de Rossi) is much too conventional to belong in such an offbeat exercise. And everything concerning the retrieval of buried diamonds is preposterously staged to the point of being annoying.

Still, movies that keep circling around to reinvent themselves do work at a secondary level even when the surface stuff stumbles.

Randy Edelman's sprightly gem of a score has stirring echoes of its own, perhaps in deliberate homage to influential composers such as John Barry and Elmer Bernstein.

'Who is Cletis Tout?'


Director: Chris Ver Wiel
Stars: Christian Slater, Tim Allen, Richard Dreyfuss
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and sexuality
Where: Denis, Mt. Lebanon
stars

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